In Bruges (2008) – A Movie Review

In Bruges is described as a black comedy-drama crime thriller.  I will agree it’s a very bleak comedy indeed.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken, that work for English mob boss Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes.  Harry has ordered the two men to lay low in the Belgium resort town of Bruges after a hit in the London area went badly.

When first introduced Ray and Ken are arguing about Bruges.  Ray claims that Bruges is too insanely boring for him to endure and Ken claims that Bruges’ cultural and scenic virtues made it a relaxing and interesting hiding place.  Ray is a young working-class man who has no interest in a tourist attraction while Ken is an older man who seems to possess sensibilities outside of the brutal realities of his murderous trade.

And so, the first part of the movie is the two hit men bickering about spending their time in the pubs versus sightseeing the medieval tourist destinations.  During this time Ray meets a young woman, Chloë, associated with a film shoot, an actress.  And among the actors on the streets taking part in the filming is a dwarf named Jimmy whom Ray is inexplicably fascinated by.  But while the two men are out and about Harry calls for them and is extremely angry at their absence from their room.

At this point we are shown a flashback to the hit that caused Ray and Ken to hide out in Bruges.  During a confession in a Roman Catholic Church Ray confesses to a murder and when the priest asks him who he murdered Ray replies, “You.”  Then he proceeds to fire several rounds into the priest.  So far so good.  Mission accomplished but the bullets also killed several people waiting for confession including a young old boy.  And he sees a note that the boy had written listing his sins which included not doing well enough in math class.  Now we see that Ray is haunted by his “sin” against innocence.

And in the next scene while Ray is on a date with the actress, Ken takes the phone call from Harry.  Harry tells Ken that he sent them to Bruges to give Ray a pleasant send off before he has Ken kill him.  When Ken objects Harry explains that killing a kid is a mistake that can’t be allowed and Ray has to pay the price.  It’s part of Harry’s personal moral code.  Of course, Harry seems like an unhinged psychopath but apparently, he has a code.  Ken agrees to the hit.

Meanwhile Ray’s “date” takes a very odd turn.  While Ray and Chloë amorously engaged in her bed, a former boyfriend (or a grifting partner of hers, Eirik confronts them and threatens Ray with a pistol.  Ray quickly disarms Eirik and during a struggle fires off a blank round next to Eirik’s face, blinding him in one eye and causing Chloë to escort Eirik to the hospital.

The next day Ray goes out to a nearby park.  Ken follows him with a silenced pistol prepared to carry out the hit.  He sees Ray on a bench with his back to him and as he runs up to shoot him, he sees that Ray is about to commit suicide with a pistol.  Ken shouts to Ray and prevents the suicide.

Needles to say in the next moments Ray explains how guilty he feels about the death of the child and Ken explains why he was running up behind Ray with a drawn pistol.  After a protracted discussion Ken decides that he can’t kill Ray and tells him to get on a train and disappear into the European hinterlands to avoid being rubbed out by Harry.  As Ray leaves Ken speaks to Harry on the phone and tells him he’s let Ray go.  Ray goes ballistic and smashes up the phone in his home and screams abuse and profanity at his wife and children.  He informs her that he is headed to Bruges on a matter of “honor.”

Back on the train Ray is apprehended by the police for injuring Eirik with his own pistol and is jailed in Bruges.  Eventually Chloë bails him out and he spends the day with her walking around town.  When Harry arrives, he and Ken climb to the top of a local church tower and once there Harry orders Ken to shoot it out with him.  But Ken refuses.  He puts his gun down and tells Harry to what he needs to.  Harry raves and abuses Ken but tells Ken he can’t kill him because he recognizes that Ken is doing what he believes is right.  But he still shoots Ken in the leg out of blind anger.  While up in the tower Harry finds out that Ray and Chloë are sitting on a bench at the bottom of the tower.  Harry leaves Ken in the tower and runs down to kill Ray.  But before Harry can reach Ray, Ken jumps off the high tower and with his dying breath tells Ray that Harry has come to kill him.

Ray flees from Harry and reaches his hotel room to retrieve his gun.  The pregnant hotel owner refuses to get out of Harry’s way when he demands to go up to kill Ray in his room.  Ray tells Harry that he will jump out of his room window into the canal so that Harry won’t have to shoot past the hotel owner.  Ray jumps into the canal and lands on a barge passing by.  Harry fires and strikes Ray in the chest.  Ray gets off the barge and staggers through the streets and finds himself inside the movie set.  The dwarf Jimmy is dressed as a young schoolboy.  Ray continues to stumble through the street and eventually Harry catches up to him and shoots him twice more in the back.  But one of the bullets exits Ray’s body and strikes Jimmy in the head.  When Harry reaches Ray, he sees Jimmy and thinks he has killed a child.  He says, “So that’s what it’s like.”  Ray tries to tell Harry that Jimmy isn’t a child but is too weak from his injuries.  Then Harry takes his gun and shoots himself in the mouth.  The movie ends with Ray narrating that if he survives the shooting, he will find the family of the boy he killed and perform whatever punishment they demand of him.  He also muses over whether hell is being stuck in Bruges forever.  And he does admit he hopes he lives.

Saying this is a black comedy is an understatement.  But make no mistake, comedy is exactly what it is intended to be.  The movie is laced with sarcasm, irony and comical scenes and dialog that plays on the outrageous and callous behavior of Ray and most of the other cast.  Ken seems to be the closest thing to a normal human being in the movie.  He spares Ray and then lays down his own life to save him.  But surprisingly both Ray and Harry also both seem to have one limit to their ruthlessness.  They seem to recognize the sanctity of innocent children.  This movie is bizarre.  I won’t pretend that it doesn’t have many faults.  It’s laced with profanity, loaded with sociopathic behavior and provides a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of gangsters and other assorted low lives.  But it does tell a compelling story of two men who have some sparks of humanity mixed in with their brutal careers.  Recommended for fans of gangster movies who are not easily offended by gratuitous violence and coarseness.

Eastern Promises (2007) – A Movie Review

This is a movie about some Russian mobsters in London.

(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)

Anna Khitrova is a nurse in the maternity ward of a London hospital.  One day a pregnant underage girl Tatiana shows up hemorrhaging and in cardiac distress.  We’re shown the needle marks on her arms.  She’s rushed into surgery and the baby is saved but the mother dies.  Anna finds a diary written in Russian in Tatiana’s possessions.  She asks her uncle Stepan to translate the diary but after looking through it he tells Anna not to get involved.

But Anna wants the baby to go back to Tatiana’s family instead of into foster care.  She finds a card for a Russian restaurant in the diary and goes there to find out about Tatiana and to get the diary translated to find her family.  She meets the restaurant’s owner Semyon a courtly old man and his son Kirill and their “driver” Nikolai (played by Viggo Mortensen).  In reality Semyon is the head of the local Russian mafia family.  Semyon tells Anna he has never heard of Tatiana but agrees to translate the diary for her.

Meanwhile we see what Kirill and Nikolai are up to.  Kirill has ordered a hit on another Russian mobster and Nikolai helps to “process” the body by removing the teeth and cutting off the fingers in a scene that tells you how cold blooded he can act.  They dump the body in the Thames but all this was done behind Semyon’s back.  Kirill is a loose cannon who acts out of emotion.  The murdered gangster has an organization that will be looking for revenge.

Semyon reads the diary and realizes that it implicates Kirill and himself in statutory rape and much more.  He orders Nikolai to murder Anna’s uncle because of his knowledge of the diary’s contents.  When Semyon’s contacts tell him that a Chechen hit squad is hunting for Kirill but does not know what he looks like he hatches a plan.  He decides to elevate Nikolai to a “made man,” so to speak, in the organization.  He is given the “star” tattoos on his shoulders and knees.  And he is invited by one of the organization to a meeting at a bathhouse.  It’s a set up for a hit.  The two Chechens are told that Nikolai is Kirill and they attack him as he sits in a towel in the sauna.  After a harrowing battle in which he sustains numerous knife wounds he kills both hitmen.

At the hospital where he is recovering from his wounds Nikolai is visited secretly by a high-ranking Scotland Yard officer named Yuri.  We learn that Nikolai is an undercover FSB agent infiltrating the Russian mafia with the approval of the British government.  Nikolai insists that what must be done is arrest Semyon for the statutory rape of Tatiana based on DNA evidence of his paternity of her child.  This will allow Kirill to assume titular control of the family but leave Nikolai in actual control to do his work from the inside.  Anna finds out that Nikolai did not murder her missing uncle but sent him out of town (Scotland) to hide from Semyon.  She now believes that Nikolai is not part of the plot to hide Tatiana’s abuse.

But when the police demand a blood sample from Semyon, he figures out what’s going on and sends Kirill to the hospital where Tatiana’s baby is being held to kidnap her.  He intends to drown her in the river.  But Kirill is guilt ridden over the idea of murdering the child.  By the time he steels himself to commit the murder Nikolai and Anna arrive to talk him out of it and save the child.  Nikolai convinces Kirill that his father must be allowed to go to prison in order for the two of them to gain control of the business.  Kirill begs Nicholai to believe that he had nothing to do with the Chechen hit squad going after Nikolai and they are reconciled to this new partnership they are forming.

In the last scene Semyon is in prison and Tatiana’s baby has been adopted by Anna.  The last image is of Nikolai now dressed as a prosperous business man in the restaurant apparently wondering what has become of his life.

This is a brutal movie.  Scenes involving the degrading treatment of the prostitutes in Semyon’s bordello and the graphic violence is disturbing.  The depraved nature of Kirill and the various other “soldiers” is depressing to watch.  It’s hard to imagine that a government agent would go through all that Nicholai does even if it is the means by which a large criminal organization is destroyed.  The depravity and the suffering he goes through is mind altering.  Who can I recommend this movie to?  Well, not the easily offended.  Sexual content and violence are pretty extreme.  In addition, I’d say this movie is for people who go in for gangster movies.  If you fit into both those categories then this is actually a legitimate film.  The acting is mostly very good.  Viggo Mortensen does a superb job as the fake hitman.  And if action scenes are what you crave then the hit in the sauna is one for the record books.  It’s extremely harrowing and effective.  Hopefully I’ve spelled out what this movie is.

Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Movie Review – The Irishman

The Fat Man is a learned critic of cinema.  I welcome his contributions and hope to see him on a regular basis.


There are many ways to consider The Irishman, Scorsese’s’ latest, and hopefully last, gangster pic. We can try to at least mention them all but it may be best to see it as another allegorical mock epic. Almost the entirety of post-war US history not only acts as a backdrop to the film, but the movie suggests its main characters were central players in such events as the Kennedy assassination, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crises, perhaps even Watergate. The baby boomers can’t get over their all but irrelevant history of air conditioned atavism and faux passivism. They have no epic story to tell, so they are continually painting up their cowardice in the face of a minor war or their alternating deification and denunciation of their fallen non-hero, JFK.

It is no shame that Scorsese reveals himself as sentimental and self-deluding in The Irishman. Many great films begin with cherished delusions, like the tradition of the Ronin or the hooker-with- a-heart-of-gold. Marty and Paul Schrader did wonders with that last fantasy in Taxi Driver, with the whore/Madonna duo played by Cybil Shepard and Jodie Foster. The fact that poor Jodie was still prepubescent was just a cute detail, like attending college to avoid the draft and then going on to graduate studies to learn to justify it to the memory of the poor guys that got killed. But at least Taxi was, in its dysfunctional characters and their infantile motivations, funny. “He’s not a murderer, he’s a Sagittarius” (or was it an Aquarius), protests Jodie Foster’s character, Iris, to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle for criticizing her pimp, Sport. That may be the funniest line to come out of Hollywood in the 1970’s.


I guess it’s time to address the details of The Irishman and justify all this scorn I’m heaping. Let’s start with funny. It’s not. The cheap laughs squeezed out by mocking the blue-collar naivety of the regular-guy-come-psychopath, Frank Sheeran, the movies protagonist played by De Niro, are so hackneyed they will make you squirm. The rest is humorless. How Scorsese managed to get one of the most naturally funny actors of the 1970’s and 80’s, Joe Pesci, to turn in a joyless performance will remain a mystery.

But, you may ask, why is funny so important. This is big stuff, Pacino, De Niro, Pesci, Keitel, the all-stars, it’s an epic, remember?

It’s true Scorsese swung for the fences on this one, as he did with The Aviator, The Age of Innocence and The Gangs of New York. You’d think he’d learn. Not satisfied with his one true contribution to American cinema, Raging Bull, a small movie perfectly drawn, he continues to balk at the big canvas. He can’t do it. All of his attempts, whether he juices them with amazing sets as in Gangs, or beautiful costumes like in Age, or a remarkable profile like Howard Hughes, fail for the same reason. He can’t tell that story. He can scare us and make us laugh, but he can’t move us. His work can be natural or abstract but never profound. He knows it, as all directors do that pile on the violence. They’re impotent so they pour on the blood.

And Scorsese, as usual, does pour on the blood. We make our way through Frank’s mournful decent from hard working family man to prolific serial killer. We are told the war was to blame where he was asked to unofficially execute German prisoners. His wonders why these prisoners were so compliant in digging their own graves. He asks himself maybe they thought they would get a break if they did a good job? It never occurs to him they were just taking more orders, the same process that dehumanized them in the camps and him.

The Irishman is quiet for a Scorsese movie, without any of the Eric Clapton that accompanied the mayhem in Goodfellars. A number of times, in the background score and in shots of empty rooms through partially open doors we see references to that most quiet of directors, Yasujiro Ozu. Ozu, who directed Tokyo Story, is of course admired by Scorsese but unlike the Italian neo realists that he loves, Ozu and his peaceful style is wholly unsuited to a gangster movie. It’s a clue of what Scorsese is trying to do. Make peace. It explains the unfunny Pesci performance and the banality of De Niro’s narration. Scorsese never had the hand to paint the kind of movie that his contemporaries Roman Polanski and Francis Ford Coppola did. He could never shoot a scene like Brando in his office listening to the undertaker or like John Huston and Jack Nicholson discussing broiled fish. So he made up for it with rotating camera’s in the ring and forensic dialog ripped from FBI files.

But in The Irishman he tries Ozu and we get a whispering Joe Pesci saying “I chose us” to De Niro at the movies end to explain Hoffa’s betrayal. And Hoffa was betrayed, by Scorsese, by Pacino, by everyone who might be interested in what he did build into his union. It must be a curse to try to do a film about the union boss. Nicholson’s Hoffa was terrible, but at least he wasn’t transformed by an aging Italian actor and his friend’s pathetic confession into a one-dimensional stooge. Nothing is examined, nothing explained, just gossip.

And that is the reason the Irishman is a terrible movie. You can’t attempt to depict the sweep of a generation without saying something about why it matters. But because his generation still lies about the meaning of Kennedys and Castro and war, Scorsese has to lie as well. And so he does for the three hours of The Irishman.




John Wick – A Movie Review

Keanu Reeves is a bizarre phenomenon. He’s been making movies since the mid-eighties and is 54 years old.  Yet I think of him as basically Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.  It’s the same halting voice and basic appearance.  In the interim he has starred in a number of money making movies, most notably The Matrix.  And he has become an action movie hero.  The John Wick movies are the latest extension of this venture.

I watched John Wick probably a year after it was in the theaters.  The premise was of course ridiculous.  John is your basic retired uber-hitman.  He gave up his hum-drum nine to five life of garroting and mangling the enemies of his New York Russian Mafia Crime Lord to live a peaceful idyllic life in his spectacular suburban estate with his beautiful but short-lived wife.  She dies of cancer shortly before the movie’s start but is thoughtful enough to have a puppy delivered to John near the opening scene.  So, you get it, dead wife reaches beyond the grave and bestows gift of love to retired hitman?  Memory of dead wife and gift she left him is most important thing in his life.  Check.  Also, loves vintage sports cars and ’69 Mustang is second most important thing in his life.  Check.  The set up.  Check.

Somehow, completely coincidentally and without knowing who he’s dealing with, the son of John Wick’s crime lord ex-boss accidentally victimizes the now retired hitman and starts a vendetta by stealing his car and killing his dog.  Well I guess it could have been more blatant.  He might have gone for the trifecta and castrated Wick while he was at it.

After this the film embarks on an odyssey of shooting, stabbing and punching pleasure.  You’d think after the first couple of dozen gangsters are dispatched that it would start to get boring and repetitive.  But the hyper-kinetic fight scenes are strangely fascinating.  It was as if you were watching one of those loops they include with a first-person shooter game that show how someone who has memorized the game can dispatch all the enemies one by one in incredible speed and precision.  It’s the extension of the concept seen at the end of the Matrix where Neo has gotten the hang of his abilities and is fighting Agent Smith with one hand held behind his back, parrying every punch without even looking because his reflexes are an order of magnitude faster than his opponent’s.

Anyway, this goes on for the balance of the movie.  The Russian Crime Lord is kind of entertaining and we are introduced to the Continental Hotel and Club that caters to hitmen and forbids them to kill each other on its grounds under penalty of membership termination (which coincidentally includes death).  It’s lots of fun and there are gold coins and lots of automatic weapons and views of iconic Manhattan locations.

By the end of the movie, at least John’s absorbed a lot of damage from fighting the dozens of hit men who stand between him and the Crime Lord that needs killing.  So, you know it wasn’t easy.  And he finds a new dog.  So, balance is restored to the universe and John Wick can go back into a peaceful retirement since everyone is dead.

So, what’s my opinion?  Was it good.  Well, obviously, it has to be compared by the standards of the genre it belongs in.  It’s an action adventure.  It’s almost a comic book movie.  From that perspective, it’s highly successful.  It’s as full of action as it’s possible to imagine.  The fight choreography is meticulous and the cinematography is highly effective.  And he’s only killing bad guys.  He’s the strong silent man bringing down vengeance on his enemies.  He’s the modern-day Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood but without the occasional complete sentence.

I liked it.  Admittedly it’s a guilty pleasure.  Basically, it’s an atavistic response to injustice.  Take justice into your own hands and clean house.  Scratch the veneer and we’re still just cavemen.  Sure, we’ve got indoor plumbing and 401K plans but the mindless primitive lurks right below the surface.  Once you recognize that, you can jump right in and enjoy John Wick for what it is.  High Octane Revenge.

John Wick 2 – A Movie Review